In the last blog in this series, I talked about how to engage in theological conversation or controversy, especially on the internet. In this blog post I want to take this one step further in talking about our attitude. In my opinion, one cannot underestimate the importance of having the right attitude. Chuck Swindoll says that life is about one-percent what happens to you and ninety-nine percent how we respond.

I often talk about the importance of having an irenic approach to doing theology. It would seem that this term, “irenic” is suffering because of its overuse and misidentification with those who would choose to abuse it. To be irenic means that we are peaceful in our approach to issues. This does not involve compromise, but a willingness to engage issues fairly.

Here are some of the characteristics to being irenic in theological conversation and controversy:

  • You accurately represent all theological positions, even when you strongly oppose them.
  • Your tone of engagement comes from a humble respectful attitude.
  • Your primary goal is not to win an argument, but to contribute to understanding.
  • Your defense of your position recognizes that strengths of the opposing side.
  • You are gentle.

Here are two important Scripture references concerning how we are to engage in theological discussion irenically:

2 Timothy 2:24 “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”

Notice the key phrases:

  • “not be quarrelsome”
  • “kind to all”
  • “patient when wronged”
  • “with gentleness correcting”

This describes the irenic method of theological engagement.

1 Peter 3:15 “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”

Notice a few things about this passage:

  • The context has to do with a believer ”suffering for righteousness”
  • We are to give an answer (apologetic) to those who ask
  • This is to be done with gentleness
  • This is to be done with respect

Many of us only hear the first part of the verse “give an defense,” and upon this we justify our apologetic polemic ready to destroy, slander, or misrepresent any who disagree with what we believe to be the truth. We fail to recognize that this defense, in this context, is to be given to people “who ask.” This is requested information based upon a life of integrity in the midst of our suffering. As well, this defense is to be done irenically—with gentleness and respect.

I can hear the “what abouts” coming. And in the spirit of this post let me tell you how stupid you are for questioning my . . . ahem . . . Ok, let’s deal with them.

There seems to be examples in the Scripture where the prophets, apostles, and even Christ did not engage irenically. In other words, they often seemed to engage people with a fierce resolve, respecting the truth more than the person with whom there is conflict. I admit this is true. I also admit that there are times when such polemics are important. But we need to look at the context in which this type of polemic is brought about.

1. Should we defend the faith like Christ cleansed the temple?

We often think we should speak with the authority of Christ. In defense of our attitude we will appeal to Christ’s attitude toward the pharisees or his cleansing the temple. But to refer to the example of Christ in these instances can be problematic seeing as how Christ’s actions are not always intended to set examples for us. I know this sounds off, but think about it. He worked great miracles in order to demonstrate his unique authority, he engaged people with a divine introspection knowing their thoughts, motives, and intentions, and he was the ultimate divine judge who has every right to judge all people. As well, this was not the modus operandi of Christ. Do you ever notice that he was only polemic in such a way to the self-righteous who arrogantly believed they had all the answers and were a step above all the rest?

2. Should we defend the faith like Paul encountered the Galatians.

Many times we will appeal to Paul’s example. His polemics, especially to the Galatians, are used to defend our own less than gracious encounters. But this has problems as well.

First, Paul was an apostle who carried the authority of an apostle. Being such, he had both divine authority and the divine ability to speak to a situation with infallible guidance. This is something that most of us we cannot claim. Can we?

Second, Paul primarily only spoke in such a way to those who were under his authority. He was their leader and had the right and obligation as their leader to engage them in a candid way. He was their pastor. Pastor’s can and sometimes should speak in such a manner to their flock.

Third, like Christ, Paul did not always engage people in such a way. In fact, as noted above, the encouraged his people to be gracious, humble, and respectful in all their dealing with those with whom there is disagreement. In 1 Thess 2:7 he describes his own ministry as one of gentleness, comparing it to a mother caring for her children.

Sadly, it often seems as if there are people out there who not only think they are an apostle, but also think that they are talking to their own congregation. Some even seem to enjoy polemical engagement in an unhealthy manner. In fact, I think that a lot of ministries would not know what to do if they did not have someone to fight.

Sadly, many times this attitude is found more in my own conservative Calvinistic circles than in any other. For this I am sorry and ashamed. Sometimes Calvinists often make the worst Calvinists . But, of course, it can be found in any group. Baptists have a knack for it. Even emergers can display the most angered, discounting, and arrogant spirit that I have ever seen.

Why do we sometimes act this way?

I am not sure.

Maybe its because we are so confident in the particulars of our faith that we feel we have the right to shout the loudest. We have the greatest message. We feel our polemic will force the truth into the mind of those who oppose.

Or . . .

Maybe we think that we have to set an example of the truth to those who are listening from the outside. Like in a debate, we don’t really think we are going to convert our opponent, but we hope to solidify our position among those who are listening.

Or . . .

Maybe it is because we are so insecure in our position that we think the louder we are the more true our words are. As I tell students, if you are not confident about what you are saying, you can first speak deeper, second speak louder. And if both of these don’t work, speak with a British accent!! In truth, I have found that the most fundamentally uninformed folk believers are often the most polemically militant because they, deep down, don’t really know why they believe what they believe. Their only recourse is not a gentle engagement, but a raised voice.

What part of gentleness and respect don’t we understand. Ironically, the original title of this blog was going to be “What Part of Gentleness and Respect Don’t You Understand.” I had to change it in order to keep with the spirit of the post.

I am certainly not perfect with this issue. Believe me. This, as with the last post, is self-therapy. Awww . . . aren’t I humble? Let us all try to be more gentle, humble, and respectful when defending the faith. In earnstly contending for the faith, let us be irenic.

For those of you who will respond to this by posting with a sawed off shot loaded with your favorite Scripture, take you proof-texting and shove them . . . Ahem . . . Please deal with the Scriptures in such a way that takes into account their context.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    15 replies to "What Part of Gentleness and Respect don’t You We Understand?"

    • joyce

      Any ideas of a gentle and respectful way to confront our male songleader who showed up Sunday on the podium with a nose ring? For years now, the pastor has ignored the girl, hip hugger jeans, boxers showing, and shoulder length long hair. What next? The youth pastor answered my questions with, well, unless you can show me a verse about nose rings… Help! My verses about imitating Christ, and pleasing God did not seem to be enough. Noserings in the Bible tend to only be for women. I have been told that youth pastors should be allowed to dress like the teens, so when do we finally say, enough? When they come dressed like goth? or clowns?

    • C. Barton

      If I may:
      according to some sources, piercings (and tattoos) have cultic underpinnings and are a sign of binding the part which is pierced; this, according to this source, is why you typically see piercings at the “gates” of the body: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and you get the picture. And we know that our bondage in Christ is voluntary, without mutilation or piercing of the body as a sign. Anything that is uncomfortable in the spirit and would be a temptation to others is probably not a good idea to flaunt while in Church attendance.
      Also, I respectfully protest any amalgam of Christian principles and pagan concepts: a mental stronghold of darkness cannot be “sanctified” by silk-screening Jesus on it.

    • Mark CE

      I would like to be an Irenist 🙂

    • Lawrence

      “Second, Paul primarily only spoke in such a way to those who were under
      his authority. He was their leader and had the right and obligation as their
      leader to engage them in a candid way. He was their pastor. Pastor’s can
      and sometimes should speak in such a manner to their flock.”

      1Peter 5:
      1 ¶ The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a
      witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that
      shall be revealed:
      2 Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof,
      not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind;
      3 Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the
      4 And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of
      glory that fadeth not away.

      Authority is only a result of the believer’s ability to recognize agreement
      with the word of God. In 1John 4:1-6 the author equates receiveng truth
      from God’s word with acknowledging that Jesus came in the flesh. By this
      a believer can test to see if truth or error is being taught. No believer
      ought to accept things that they themselves have not learned from
      scripture. A teacher in the church should be teaching in the same manner
      that a mathematics teacher teaches math. Not by simply giving the final
      answer, but by demonstrating how one arrives at the answer.
      I believe that the idea of being “under” the authority of church leaders is
      misleading. Rather, one should not ignore someone who opens their eyes
      to a teaching by sharing how they arrived at it. One should ignore those
      who insist on being followed based on their title alone (see Gal. 1:8).

    • Kate

      #1 and #2. Honestly, why do you care how they are dressed? Isn’t it what is inside that is important?

    • Alexander M Jordan


      Actually we can’t know what is on the inside of another person (as far as their heart), but we all called to evaluate the fruit (works) of our own, and other ministries.

      I think comments 1 and 2 raise up very valid concerns, especially for our youth today.

      Paul addresses the issue of what Christians should wear, though he knows that Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (so what is “inside” them is good). For example, in 1 Tim 2:8-10 he says “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.”

      The principles expressed here would apply to Christian men’s attire as well: we ought to wear that which is: “respectable” and appropriate to one professing godliness. We are to have “modesty and self-control” in our demeanor and dress.

      Also, Paul contrasts wearing “braided hair and gold and pearls or costly attire” against that which is proper for women who profess godliness. I think the principle here is that wearing flashy, expensive clothes draws attention to ourselves, but as Christians we are to draw attention to the the gospel of Jesus Christ.

      There isn’t a Christian “uniform” that Christians should wear at all times. But the Bible gives us principles to follow so that what we choose to wear will be appropriate on all occasions because honoring to God.

      As for tattoos and piercings, I concur that they have occult significance. God prohibited tattoos in Lev 19:28, apparently so that His people would be distinct from pagan cultures surrounding them, and also because we belong to God– His “mark” of love should be upon us, reflected in our actions.

      The disrespect, lack of civility, inappropriateness, sexual immodesty, rudeness and coarseness which have become rampant today are at least partly influenced by the philosophy that everyone should have complete liberty do do whatever they want, including dressing however they please in every situation. The kids today have grown up with this notion and that’s what our culture teaches them, but Christians should be teaching them something different. Perhaps the world does not know any better and embraces this libertarian philosophy, but Christians ought to recognize that what they wear reflects on their relationship with God.

      I write these things as one who has failed in many ways and is a sinner. But I am in a process of repentance and I hope that my past dishonoring of the Lord will be forgotten and overlooked and that the grace of God will enable me to honor Him much better in the future.

    • kate

      I think that 1 Tim 2 is saying that women shouldn’t take pride in costly attire, but rather work on their inner lives. We can’t know for certain what is inside another, true; we can make a pretty good guess by how they are living their lives though. If my youth pastor was bringing kids to Christ and disipling them, I wouldn’t much care if he had a nose ring or not. If a kid dressed as you described walked into your church for the first time, how would you treat him? How would other people in the parish treat him? Is the most important thing about him how he is dressed, or the fact that he is seeking? Who is that kid more likely to confide in, the man in the brush cut and suit or the youth pastor with the long hair and the nose ring? (Although, I must admit, personally, I had the underwear showing fad, and I hope it goes away soon!)

    • Alexander M Jordan

      I agree Kate, that no matter how one is dressed, the way we treat other people is of paramount importance. If I am wearing all the “right” clothes but my attitudes and behaviors are un-Christian and unloving, the benefit that comes from being dressed appropriately is negated.

      If a person dressed inappropriately comes into the church, I might assume that he/she is either an unbeliever or doesn’t know any better. But I wouldn’t treat them any differently than anyone else because that would show partiality:

      “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,”have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

      If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2: 1-9)”

      So yes it is absolutely critical than believers on the inside are acting as truly Christian. Nevertheless, as I pointed out in the previous comment, Scripture does give us guidelines for dressing appropriately as Christian men and women, showing that what is worn on the outside makes a statement to the entire world about my faith on the inside– so what one wears is not an entirely neutral matter.

      I don’t need to dress like the world in order to reach the world. In fact, I ought to be distinct from the world in my dress, just as the Bible teaches me to distinct from the world in attitudes. It is not so simple as to say, well she/he has good attitudes on the inside so what is worn on the outside doesn’t matter or has no meaning.

      The world teaches our children all kinds of wrong attitudes: disrespect for elders and for authority figures, “my clothes have to be cool or else I won’t fit in and then I’m worthless”, “I must flaunt my sexuality through my clothing”, etc. So to reach them am I supposed to adopt their same clothes, that are a reflection of a rebellious, anti-Christian culture?

      Now I think most kids aren’t consciously rebelling; they’re just imitating one another and getting their cues from MTV and movies and music stars, etc. So one ought to be understanding and compassionate and not pre-judge them as people by what they’re wearing. But if we can teach and help children to think Christianly, they themselves will begin to grow up in their understanding and see the connection between how they express themselves on the outside and who they are inside. I think that as they mature in this they will then make appropriate adjustments.

      But we need to help them in this, and not just capitulate to the culture and say it doesn’t matter what they wear. The Bible says it does matter, and as their leaders we’re accountable for setting a good example and giving them right principles to act on. You say, “I hope the underwear showing fad goes away soon”, but don’t you see it’s not just going to go away–in fact it’s going to get worse– unless we Christians act counter-culturally and show the youth the kinds of biblical truths I’m talking about, so that they can learn how to think in a way that honors God, and in turn they will act in a way that honors Him.



    • kate

      I disagree with your interpretation of scripture. I think the scriptures you quoted have more to do with inward spiritual growth than they do with outward appearance. I don’t think nose rings have much to do with flaunting sexuality – it’s just a style. I would agree that we ought to dress modestly, I just don’t really consider nose rings and long hair to be immodest. The example of Hudson Taylor comes to mind. When he came home on furlough, his comtemporaries thought it was disgraceful that he had grown his hair long and adopted Chineese dress. Yet, the Chineese would pay no attention to him until he did, and he had the first successful Christian ministry to the Chineese. There are other examples – I once read of a pastor who had a ministry to bikers, so he adopted biker dress. Despite the fact that he brought people out of criminal biker activity into Christianity, he had people tell him that his long hair and leathers made him a “disgrace to the pastorate” So I suppose I am going to have to agree to disagree with you on this one. I think we need to let go of some cultural expectations if we expect to reach people for Christ.

    • Alexander M Jordan


      I think we have liberty as Christians to dress in a variety of styles, as suits our own personalities. I wasn’t referring at all to the long hair and nose ring of the youth pastor in your church but making a more general observation that we in the USA live in a culture that is highly immodest and encourages young people to dress more and more immodestly (Europe perhaps is worse than us in this respect but we’re catching up).

      Dressing in such a way as to relate to people you are trying to reach is also not what I was speaking about. I think there’s a difference between making that good effort vs accommodating to the ungodly aspects of human cultures.

      It seems to me you sense there’s something inappropriate about the youth pastor wearing his clothes in such a way that his underwear is showing, but you still seem to want to justify it on the basis that dressed in this way he reaches the kids? But if clothes really don’t matter, and it’s what inside that counts, which is what you were initially saying, then why should the youth pastor have to dress in a certain way to reach the kids? That seems to me a contradiction in your argument.

      Again, I’m not saying all Christians must dress alike, I’m saying that clothes are not neutral and do reflect something about us and the God we represent. We are called to be a holy people, and the way we dress has some bearing on this calling.



    • kate

      I didn’t say that there was something inappropriate about the underwear fad – I said I didn’t like it. Nor was I speaking of the youth pastor in my church, I was refering to the pastor being spoken about in the first comment.

      My initial comment, which I would like to return to, was about the youth pastor with the nose ring and the long hair. I think that such things are morally neutral, are not accomadating any ungodly aspects of our culture, and that we as Christians have more inportant things to concern ourselves about. Long hair and piercings on parish leaders are simply not worth getting upset about, most especially if they help said leader interact with unreached people.

      Anyway, this is getting pretty off topic, and I don’t want to hijack the thread any further!

    • kate

      Ran out of editing time Perhaps we should get back to the topic of the original post? I don’t want to be accused of spamming.

    • Alexander M Jordan

      Hi Kate

      I forgot that it wasn’t you who had first mentioned the youth pastor… I guess we are emphasizing different points. You’re saying it’s not that important what the youth pastor wears so long as he connects with the young people. While I agree that one may choose the clothes one wears as a means of relating to the people we’re trying to reach, I’m also saying that that’s not the only consideration of importance in what we wear. If one considers that as a pastor he is representing Christ (just as we all represent Christ) then what we choose to wear should first please God.

      So for example, wearing tattoos that have occult significance seems to me inappropriate for the believer, who is supposed to be set apart from ungodly practices. Women or men wearing immodest clothing that draws attention to their anatomy is something we should also avoid. Historically the people of God are influenced (usually negatively) by what they allow themselves to interact with. And certainly in the last 20 years are culture has become much more permissive in general, in a way that has had much negative impact on youth today, in terms of teen pregnancy, abortion, attitudes towards sex, etc, and has certainly filtered through into the church. So is all this unrelated to a youth pastor deciding to have long hair and wear a nose ring? Perhaps, but my point is that if we don’t even think about these issues and dismiss them as unimportant, there is a slow but sure slide towards accommodation to the immorality of the culture.

      Of course this whole discussion has not been related to the topic of the original article. I only hope that we have spoken in a spirit that exemplifies what Michael Patton was addressing in the original post– gentleness and respect.



    • Joyce Williamson

      Thank you, Alex. I have enjoyed the subject, and hope and pray God give me His gentleness and respect when dealing the our nose-ringed, hip-hugger youth/song leader at our church.

    • […] Title: What Part of Gentleness and Respect don’t We Understand? by Michael Patton You can read the whole blog by clicking on the title, but I want to focus on a […]

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